By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
On Friday, March 26, President Judge Kimberly Berkeley Clark of the Fifth Judicial District signed an administrative order directing all judges in Allegheny County to make their proceedings virtually accessible to the public. The order will remain in effect through at least June 30, when the District’s COVID-19 judicial emergency is currently set to expire.
The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center wrote to the Pittsburgh Current, “Judge Mariani is now providing ALC’s court watchers with virtual access to all of his proceedings….We’ve agreed to put the litigation on pause for three weeks while we assess the judges’ response to the new administrative order. We hope that the court’s new administrative order will deter any future violations, whether by Judge Mariani or any of the other judges.”
The Abolitionist Law Center filed a federal lawsuit this morning against Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Anthony Mariani for his refusal to allow virtual access to proceedings in his courtroom.
The ALC is represented by the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center.
In December, the Fifth Judicial District in Allegheny County avoided a lawsuit from advocacy and media groups, including the Pittsburgh Current, by agreeing to put a mechanism in place to allow for the streaming of proceedings.
According to a press release announcing the lawsuit, Mariani is the only judge who has denied virtual access to volunteers from the ALC’s Court watch program. While some judge’s have denied access in certain circumstances, Mariani has offered consistent denials.
“Judge Mariani is the only judge who’s denying access to everyone in all cases, under all circumstances, without exception,” said Nicolas Riley of the Georgetown Law Center. Other judges have denied access in response to requests that they received less than twenty-four hours in advance of the hearing, but Judge Mariani is the only judge, to our knowledge, who denies all access requests regardless of timing. Even when ALC Court Watch volunteers submit virtual-access requests to his chambers more than twenty-four hours in advance, he still denies the requests.”
Riley said that its unclear, but possible that members of the press have been denied access to Mariani’s courtroom as well. [The Current was denied access to Judge Kelly Bigley’s courtroom earlier this year].
“I’m not aware of any specific reporters who have been denied access to Judge Mariani’s proceedings, but, given that he has a blanket policy of refusing access, it wouldn’t surprise me if it had happened. If both the press and the public are denied a real opportunity to observe, then I don’t think there’s any way for people to learn what’s happening in real time, other than hoping that one of the participants in the proceeding might be willing to share information after the fact,” said Riley.
Just as bad as the blanket refusal, is the Judge’s rule that if the public wants to view proceedings, they have to come to the courthouse and expose themselves to potential COVID-19 infection.
“A public court is not only foundational to democracy, but integral to addressing mass incarceration and keeping judges accountable for their decisions – many of which are racialized and have contributed to apartheid in Allegheny County,” said Autumn Redcross, the director of ALC’s Court Watch program. “In the midst of a year-long global pandemic that has disproportionately devastated Black and brown communities, it is not sufficient to say, ‘the courts are accessible,’ simply because the buildings are open.”
“It is unethical to expect community members to risk their health and lives to show up in person to observe an alleged public hearing, when the judge can provide remote access.”
Since January ALC volunteers have applied for and been denied access to more than 100 hearings. Reggie Shuford, executive Director of ACLU Pennsylvania says Mariani “cannot be allowed to escape scrutiny while refusing to implement common sense strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
The ALC reached out to Mariani’s chambers on multiple occasions seeking to rectify the issue, but received no response. Read the full complaint below:EMBARGOED COMPLAINT - ALC V MARIANI